Literary Character

GENRE. In varying degrees, the apostle John incorporates three literary forms: (1) apocalyptic; (2) prophetic; and (3) epistolary. The title (Apocalypse of Jesus Christ) establishes an explicit link between the book and apocalyptic tradition from the post-exilic period.

The first three chapters of Revelation are primarily epistolary genre, which is styled as a letter. Yet, these chapters are apocalyptic and prophetic also.

In the post-exilic period, the Jewish people were asking why the promises of a golden age for the nation predicted by the prophets had not materialized. The one answer is found in the apocalyptic thought—the golden age will come in a new period. Thus, the concept of two ages was very popular in apocalyptic literature. This present age is under the control of evil power and nothing can be done to redeem it. During this present age, the righteous will be persecuted and even condemned to death. Affliction and difficulties will increase up until the end of the age. However, at some point God will intervene to save His people and inaugurate the new golden age.

Apocalyptic genre is visionary, highly symbolic, pictorial, imprecisely organized, redundant, and exhortative. Daniel, Zechariah and Revelation, along with Second Esras in the Apocrypha, belong to a class of literature called apocalyptic. This genre tells history in advance in symbolic terms. Often these symbols are complex, bizarre and strange. Occasionally, the symbols are interpreted by the writers. Their interpretations help to identify other symbols.

SYMBOLISM. The Apocalypse conveys its message of unraveling history as determined by God through representative imagery, familiar or grotesque, rather than through formal definition and declaration. The various symbols used are drawn from all areas of life and creation. Some of them are easily understood, others are complex, unearthly, and pretentious in their vastness and mysteriousness as to daze, or overwhelm the reader. There are four classes of symbols:

1. Those explained in the book
2. Those explained in other parts of the Bible
3. Those left unexplained
4. Those the readers are called upon to use their wisdom to understand

The images found in the Book of Revelation arose from John’s total experience and were familiar to him and his readers. Many of these images were part of the psychological make up of the first century.

A simple axiom for all Bible study is that “if words do not mean what they say, then no one can say what they mean.” One should take the words literally, unless there is clear indication in the text that the words are symbolic or figurative. A common clue that something is to be taken symbolic is the appearance of the word “as” or “like.” Keep in mind the symbolic and figurative point to real things that have a literal interpretation, such as the donkey and elephant represent democrat and republican political parties in the United States.

Much of the imagery is taken from the Old Testament and the symbolic or figurative meanings can be understood from its usage there. For example, Revelation 4:3:

And the one who sat there had the appearance of jasper and carnelian. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircled the throne.

This description is symbolic of Christ our High Priest sitting on the Throne at the right hand of God the Father (Luke 22:69; Ephesians 1:20; Colossians 3:1; Hebrews 1:13; 12:2). How do we know this? Jasper and carnelian are the first and last stones in High Priest’s breastpiece (Exodus 39:9-10). Jasper is for the firstborn Reuben, meaning “Behold a son.” Carnelian is for the last-born Benjamin, meaning “Son of my right hand.” Combined the names depict the incarnate Son of God who ascended to the right hand of the throne of the Majesty in heaven (Hebrew 8:1), thereby, fulfilling the everlasting covenant, symbolized by the encircling emerald rainbow. Thus, other scripture passages often provide the key to interpreting the apocalyptic genre.

Revelation does not have a single direct quotation from the OT. However, there are hundreds of allusions, in one way or another, to the OT Scriptures. Of its 404 verses, there are 348 identifiable allusions to the OT, which is an average of more than ten for each chapter.

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